A poignant reunion 38 years in the making
Sean Chase/Daily Observer Former Vietnam “boat people” who came to Canada to make a new life after fleeing their home country reunited 38 years later with the Pembroke families who sponsored them. In the photo are (front left to right) Huong Tran, Mau Nguyen, Hanh Tran, Xuan Tran, Terry McCann, (back left to right) Helen McCann, Paul McCann, Mary Ann Venema, Shirley White, Kathy Kyte, Henry Venema, Anne Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Servais and Mary McCann.
In 1979, five Pembroke families opened their homes and their hearts to refugees fleeing war-ravaged Vietnam.
In the wake of the devastating civil war, over a million men, women and children risked their lives escaping the Communist southeast Asian nation in small, overcrowded ships. They were soon dubbed the “boat people.”
Some survivors languished for years in camps. Many made their way to Canada where churches, service clubs and private citizens came forward to sponsor refugees. Eventually, 110,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in this country making it their adopted home.
This week, those sponsoring families reunited with the “boat people” they had brought over 38 years ago. It was an emotional occasion for Terry McCann and other Pembroke citizens who unselfishly made the decision to take in total strangers and give them a new start.
“This was the joy of our lives,” said the former mayor, who hosted a luncheon at his home for the former refugees who are now Canadian citizens. “It really enriched us and made us better people. It was the thrill of a lifetime.”
The McCanns, along with four other families, sponsored sisters Hanh and Xuan Tran, who came to Canada after spending months in a refugee camp in Singapore. Living in Saigon, the siblings were given to an uncle named Nam Nguyen, who was escorting a group of 20 others out of the country.
“If we continue to live here, there will be no future for the children,” Xuan said recalling what Nam told their mother, who had to stay with the rest of the family.
They left the city abruptly in the middle of the night evading the military taking a canoe down the river to the ocean where they crowded aboard a dilapidated fishing trawler. They sailed out of Vietnamese waters and into the open sea, however, that was where their struggles really began.
“We were running out of food and water,” explained Xuan, who was six years old at the time. Her sister was a year older.
Recounting their harrowing ordeal, she recalled that days later a larger vessel came alongside the trawler. The crew was friendly and appeared to want to help them. However, they secretly drugged the food and water given to the refugees. Xuan remembers waking out later to the sounds of gunshots and shouting. The sailors, who turned out to be pirates, forced everyone onto the deck. Xuan then looked down to see bodies in the water.
“I remember hearing people dying,” she recounted.
Her uncle Nam told his brother to go down into the hull to retrieve some guns so they could defend themselves. His brother never came back – murdered by the pirates along with four others. The refugees were put back on their boat which had been stripped of its engine and any remaining supplies. Xuan, her sister and Uncle Nam, and the other survivors were set adrift. Another ship came along, however, their crew wanted to take the children aboard and leave the adults to die at sea. Nam refused and the ship's crew abandoned them.
They drifted for a few more weeks when a seaplane suddenly flew overhead and dropped a raft packed with food, water and a transmitter. A Japanese freighter arrived and rescued the refugees who were taken to Singapore. The family was eventually sponsored and flew to Canada in the winter of 1979. The two girls were picked up at the Ottawa airport by the late Ted White, who had helped sponsor the children with his wife, Shirley. On the drive to Pembroke, Xuan couldn't believe what she saw.
“This looks like white sand,” she added. “I had never seen snow before.”
Ten years later, the girls were reunited with their mother, Mau, and father, Huong. Xuan went on to become a registered nurse who works today at the Heart Institute in Ottawa. She is married with two children. Their uncle Nam still lives in Toronto but remained distrustful of the Vietnamese authorities whom he feared would try to arrest him for the underground railroad-type operation that he led. It was only until six years that he felt safe enough to return to Vietnam to see his family. Hanh added she has fond memories of growing up in Pembroke and going on trips and family outings with the McCanns and the other sponsors.
“Those memories shaped us to who we are,” said Hanh, a mother of three. “I tell my children all the time about you and the people who were so caring, who took us in and saved us. If it wasn't for you we wouldn't have the life that we have today.”
The experience also changed the lives of the sponsors. Henry and Mary Ann Venema sponsored a
Vietnamese boy who now lives in Montreal with his own family.
“He's like a son to us,” said Henry Venema, who visited Vietnam 10 years ago. “We now have an extended Vietnamese family.”